This past summer I was talking with another religion-beat professional and this nationally known journalist put something into words that I had been feeling, but had not yet articulated. This scribe who will not be named said that on many days she or he felt like he or she was turning into a public-relations person for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
“Amen,” said I. “I know just how you feel.”
In recent years, the pollsters and journalists over at the Pew Forum have been downloading waves of data about into the minds of religion-beat professionals from sea to shining sea and beyond. There are other groups doing research into some of these topics — religion and politics, for example — but no one has been creating as many headlines as the Pew Forum.
There are times when a self-aware Godbeat scribe has to go out of the way to avoid covering some of this material. Last year’s study on Pentecostalism is a perfect example. Now, I have been told, they are gearing up for a nation-by-nation study of religion in Africa. Try to avoid writing about that, in an era where tensions between growing expressions of Islam and Christianity are on the rise. Can you say, “Nigeria”?
I bring this up for two reasons — one obvious and one not so obvious.
The obvious reason is, well, obvious if you have been online this morning. There they go — again. You can run, but you cannot hide, from the results of the Pew Forum’s massive U.S. Religious Landscape Survey. The stories are everywhere and legions of GetReligion readers have been sending us URL’s since yesterday afternoon, when the embargo on the results ended. More on that in a minute.
The less obvious reason is that this — a blast of trumpets, please — is the 3,000th post on this here weblog. And it would be hard to find a more symbolic or appropriate topic for a landmark post than the whole changing landscape of American religion. So here goes.
There is so much coverage out there, and so much information in this survey, that I do not quite know where to begin. I mean, the Forum crew interviewed 35,000 adults. Think about that for a minute. Personally, I plan to munch on it for a week or so, and look at some of the angles that do not draw coverage, before even attempting to find a unique lede. But other reporters, obviously, had to write — on deadline.
So what were some of the MSM ledes? This is a case where diversity was a plus and it’s interesting to note who put what right up top. I’ll avoid the names of reporters, to save space.
* One clear option was what you might call the “post-denominational age” lede. Here is the New York Times take on that one:
More than a quarter of adult Americans have left the faith of their childhood to join another religion or no religion, according to a survey of religious affiliation by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The report, titled “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” depicts a highly fluid and diverse national religious life. If shifts among Protestant denominations are included, then it appears that 44 percent of Americans have switched religious affiliations. For at least a generation, scholars have noted that more Americans are moving among faiths, as denominational loyalty erodes.
* You had the same basic approach at the Associated Press, only with a hint at the winners and losers:
The U.S. religious marketplace is extremely volatile, with nearly half of American adults leaving the faith tradition of their upbringing to either switch allegiances or abandon religious affiliation altogether, a new survey finds. …
While much of the study confirms earlier findings — mainline Protestant churches are in decline, non-denominational churches are gaining and the ranks of the unaffiliated are growing — it also provides a deeper look behind those trends, and of smaller religious groups.
* This was a story where a classic W5H lede (if you need to ask what that is, you are not a journalist) might have been appropriate. The Dallas Morning News put as much as possible in one sentence and that looked like this multi-sentence approach:
A major new measure of religious belief in the United States confirms trends shown in earlier polls: The percentage of adult Americans claiming no particular religion is at an all-time high. The percentage of Protestants is dropping. And the percentage of Catholics is stable — but only because the overwhelming majority of immigrants is Catholic.
* The Washington Post had some interesting breakout numbers very close to the top, after using the post-denominational lede:
Forty-four percent of Americans have either switched their religious affiliation since childhood or dropped out of any formal religious group, according to the largest recent survey on American religious identification. …
Among other findings, the survey indicated that members of Protestant denominations now make up only a slight majority — 51.3 percent — of the adult population. The 44 percent figure includes people who switch affiliations within one of the major faith traditions, such as a Protestant who goes from Baptist to Methodist. Counting only people who switch traditions altogether — say, from Catholic to Orthodox, or Protestant to Muslim — the number drops to 28 percent.
* And there you have it, one of the other strong contenders for a different and more specific angle on the story. Let’s call it the non-Protestant America lede. Here is the Los Angeles Times, which managed to get that note sounded right from the get-go:
Americans are switching religious affiliation in ever-greater numbers or abandoning ties to organized denominations altogether, and Protestants are on the cusp of becoming a minority, according to a survey released Monday.
Barely 51% of Americans are Protestants, and among 18- to 29-year-olds, just 43% identify with this branch of Christianity. … Protestants have always held a majority status in the United States.
* Now get ready for an ironic twist. Just because the Protestants are fading does not mean that the other largest body in American religious life is doing just fine. Check out this lead from the Washington Times, which is sure to raise eyebrows:
Evangelical Christianity has become the largest religious tradition in this country, supplanting Roman Catholicism, which is slowly bleeding members, according to a survey released yesterday by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Evangelical Protestants outnumber Catholics by 26.3 percent (59 million) to 24 percent (54 million) of the population. …
“There is no question that the demographic balance has shifted in past few decades toward evangelical churches,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow at the Pew Forum. “They are now the mainline of American Protestantism.”
The traditional mainline Protestant churches, which in 1957 constituted about 66 percent of the populace, now count just 18 percent as adherents.
In other words, the post-denominational age is producing churches that are post-denominational and those are called Pentecostal and Evangelical churches. So the fact that America is approaching a post-Protestant majority status does not automatically mean that another form of mainline faith will gain power. Things may simply get more diverse and more confused — period.
I could go on and on with this and, methinks, the other GetReligionistas will join in. But I think you see the major options.
However, I hope to ring up the omnipresent John C. Green of the University of Akron and ask a few questions, like these: Are people changing faiths or is the content of these faiths changing? In other words, what role does doctrine play in all of this? People may flee one pew — in a splitting church — and try to find a pew in another church that is defending the doctrines that the old denomination used to defend. It may even be a church without pews.
You may have people who are exiting a church because they have lost their faith or radically changed it. Then again, it may be the faith of their old church that has radically changed. There are different reasons to hit the road on a personal pilgrimage (and Rod “friend of this blog” is exploring some of that). It will be interesting to see if there are hints at that down deep in the Pew Forum survey.
Stay tuned. And tell friends about GetReligion. We are 3,000 posts into this and I think we’re hanging around. You think?